Dynamic passing game leads Buffalo Bills explosive offense into 2021 season
ORCHARD PARK – For someone like Bruce Springsteen, performing an encore at the end of every concert is a pretty simple task. The man can pull from a catalogue of about a million songs and you know it’s going to be as good or better than anything else he played that particular night.
For the transcendent Buffalo Bills offense this season, perhaps providing an encore to their remarkable 2020 season will be as routine as it is for the Boss. Just roll out essentially the same group of players that set a franchise record with 501 points in 2020, and keep the hits coming.
Wide receiver Stefon Diggs knows better, though. With an offseason to study what the Bills did last year, it seems likely that opposing defenses will make things tougher for Diggs, Josh Allen and the rest of coordinator Brian Daboll’s well-oiled machine.
“It’s harder when you’re playing well and people know that you can play well,” Diggs said earlier this week. “And then you’ve got to live up to a standard of playing well each and every day, each and every game. Last year is over. We can’t translate those wins, but what we can do is take what we did from the good side of it and translate it to this year and the things that we didn’t do well. We didn’t do X-Y-Z well, let’s make sure that’s a point of emphasis going into the year.”
General manager Brandon Beane also recognizes the difficulty the Bills will have trying to match their video game type numbers from a 2020 season no one in these parts will soon forget.
“Obviously, you’re not necessarily going to duplicate what we did on offense this year; scoring 500-plus points is hard to do,” he said.
However, is it really out of the question?
“I’ve never been on this talented of a team before and that’s saying something because I’ve been on some talented teams,” Cole Beasley said.
Every starter but wide receiver John Brown is back, and his replacement, Emmanuel Sanders, might be an upgrade; Allen was the league MVP runner-up and nothing we have seen in training camp would indicate he’ll be dropping out of that conversation; the offensive line is not great, but at least the five guys who were supposed to comprise the unit last year will do so this season; there has been a noted emphasis to improve the running game; and the coaching staff, like the starting unit, returns intact, a rare dose of continuity in the transient world of the NFL.
“Time will tell,” Daboll said. “I think we’ve improved since we’ve been out here, since we got back in July. We need to continue to improve. Got such a long road ahead so the mindset is to grind, to keep on trying new things to figure out what works best. So that’s really important to us, I’d say as an offensive staff and really as an offense, it’s just keep getting better.”
Here’s a positional breakdown of where the Bills stand as they get ready to open the season Sunday against the Steelers:
Keep getting better, Daboll says? In the case of Allen, you have to wonder how much better he can be because what he put out there in 2020 was otherworldly.
His runner-up MVP platform consisted of setting Bills’ single-season records for passing yards (4,544), completions (396), completion percentage (69.2), TD passes (37), total TDs (46), 300-yard games (8), and passer rating (107.2). Oh, and 15 wins which resulted in an appearance in the AFC Championship Game, Buffalo’s first since 1993.
Any questions on why the Bills just signed the 25-year-old to a contract extension that could eventually pay him $258 million?
Allen made quantum leaps in every possible area of quarterback play over what he showed in 2018 and 2019. The natural question, of course, is where does he go from here? Does he continue his ascent, albeit at a lesser pace, or does he become the next Carson Wentz or Jared Goff, former high first-round picks who got the big money and then quickly went into descent and got themselves traded?
I think it’s safe to say Allen won’t be Goff or Wentz, and there’s two reasons: He’s a much better talent, and he’s surrounded by outstanding players in a system that he’s now four years into mastering.
“Every year presents a new challenge,” Allen said. “Learning our playbook even better, understanding defenses even better, trying to find ways I can be better and more concise in delivering the football, especially on certain routes. You always have to find a way to get better because if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse.”
The simple fact is that in 2020, the Bills really didn’t need to run the ball effectively because their passing game was so dynamic. But that doesn’t mean the Bills don’t need to be better in 2021.
“I think that negative runs were a big thing for us last year,” Daboll correctly acknowledged.
The Bills had the fourth-highest percentage of runs that were stuffed, meaning zero or negative yardage, one every 9.7 attempts. It was partially due to the lack of playmaking ability of Devin Singletary and Zack Moss, but more so the line not holding up at the point of attack and allowing far too much penetration.
A lot was made in the preseason about how good Singletary looked. Well, he had 12 touches for 74 yards against mostly backups, so let’s pump the brakes a bit and see what he does once the games start counting. As for Moss, he’ll provide a nice complement in a 1-2 punch, and I would think speedy Matt Breida may be active on game day far more than T.J. Yeldon was.
The bottom line, though, is the Bills aren’t going to improve their run game if the line keeps getting punched in the mouth and pushed backward. Even the greatest backs in NFL history needed blocking, and it’s on the line to be better.
I asked Sean McDermott the other day if this Bills’ receiver group is the deepest he’s ever seen in his 20-plus years in the league. He smiled and then in expert fashion, danced his way out of answering the question by saying, “You want me to take that bait?”
OK, he won’t say it, but I will. This is the best unit McDermott has ever been around counting his days with the Eagles and Panthers. No team in the NFL can send out a foursome like Diggs, Beasley, Gabriel Davis and Emmanuel Sanders, and then dip down to Isaiah McKenzie and Jake Kumerow.
Unless opposing defenses can really get heat on Allen, he can stand in the pocket and play catch because invariably, someone is going to be open.
Diggs had an incredible first season in Buffalo as he set team records (and led the NFL) in both catches (127) and receiving yards (1,535). Allen’s passer rating was 117.5 when he targeted Diggs which he wisely did 166 times, and Diggs’ catch percentage was 78.4, fourth-best among all receivers.
“I’ve got great quarterback play, MVP quarterback play,” Diggs said, speaking about his success. “We were in a predominantly throwing offense and for a receiver, you want to be in that; that’s what any receiver’s dream is. I was just getting open and catching the ball, doing my job, but my quarterback extending plays, Dabes calling a hell of a game, the defense playing well. It’s a tribute to everybody.”
Beasley remains one of the most elusive and reliable slot receivers in the league; Sanders is a proven winner with 662 receptions and a Super Bowl ring on his resume and he provides versatility in both where he lines up and the route tree he can run; and Davis is just a flat out baller, though it will be on him to build a strong rookie season now that defenses know who he is.
You may not have much faith in Dawson Knox who has proven to be maddeningly inconsistent during his first two seasons in the NFL, but the Bills apparently have plenty of it.
Since the end of 2020 they let Tyler Kroft walk in free agency, traded Lee Smith, did not spend a draft pick at the position, and after signing free agent Jacob Hollister, they cut him last week. Clearly, with only oft-injured Tommy Sweeney and hybrid fullback/tight end Reggie Gilliam on the 53-man roster, the Bills are rolling with Knox.
I’ve said all offseason that I think Knox has it in him to become a quality target because he has the size and athleticism you look for in a 21st-century tight end. Now he has to fix his drop issues and morph into a reliable asset for Allen if the progression works its way to him.
“In Dawson, we’ve seen improved play really through the spring and now through training camp,” McDermott said. “Whether it be the run game or the pass game, and I think Josh would say the same. He’s seen an increased level of trust from Josh and the tight end passing game. I believe Dawson’s best ball is ahead of him.”
At the close of 2020, there were some big questions facing the Bills, specifically, would they have to replace guard Jon Feliciano and tackle Daryl Williams, both of whom were unrestricted free agents, and who exactly was Cody Ford?
Heading into Week 1, this is what we know. Both Feliciano and Williams were re-signed, and Ford, who has underwhelmed so far as a 2019 second-round draft pick, appears to have won the starting right guard job over Ike Boettger.
“I don’t know how he did it, but he did,” Allen said of Beane’s ability to get Feliciano and Williams back. “I’m glad to have the guys that we have back. I love those guys. They’re the heartbeat of this team and they don’t get enough credit for what they do, and what they did last year.”
The line, despite using several different combinations due to injuries, held up well in pass protection, helped by Allen’s ability to escape pressure. Now, it just needs to fix the run blocking.
With left tackle Dion Dawkins and center Mitch Morse rounding out the unit, the Bills have the pieces in place, but they have to stay healthy and perform because the depth is pretty questionable with Boettger, Ryan Bates, and two rookie tackles, Spencer Brown and Tommy Doyle.
McDermott and Beane made a gutsy call turning the placekicking duties over rookie Tyler Bass, and they looked pretty good by year’s end when he scored a team record 141 points. He made 28 of 34 field goals and 57 of 59 extra points.
“Nothing was too big for this kid, he was never afraid of the big moment,” said Beane.
Bass was so good, the Bills didn’t even bother signing anyone to compete with him this season. They opted to have him work exclusively with long snapper Reid Ferguson and new punter/holder Matt Haack to perfect the operation, and cut back on some of the actual kicking reps to save his leg.
The one area the Bills needed to figure out this summer was kickoff and punt return, and it looks like Isaiah McKenzie will handle those duties, at least for now. Rookie Marquez Stevenson was impressive, but he suffered a foot injury and will be on injured reserve at least the first three games. When he’s healthy, it will be interesting to see whether the Bills make him a game-day active.
Sal Maiorana can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @salmaiorana.